Tag Archives: Elder Scrolls Online

MMOs Are Healthy, but the Community Isn’t

There’s always been a lot of negativity in the MMO community, and it’s always bothered me. But lately, it seems to be getting worse, swallowing the community whole until there’s nothing left.

An NPC in the MMORPG Bless Online

I’m not saying there isn’t room to complain. Things aren’t perfect. While I think a lot of the concerns over monetization practices are overblown, I won’t contend that it’s not an issue. Meanwhile early access and crowdfunding have “developers” raking in money hand over fist for the vague promise of maybe one day delivering a functional game that actually resembles the original pitch, and if that’s not messed up, I don’t know what is.

And then there’s player toxicity, and the awfulness of development “crunch,” and so on.

I also grant that it’s a lot easier to find problems than to praise what is going well. Speaking as someone who’s paid to talk about MMOs, I’m intimately familiar with how much easier it is to get an interesting discussion out of criticism.

But we’ve moved beyond all that. The community has soared past constructive criticism and become mired in endless doom-saying.

These days not only are people constantly predicting some catastrophic crash in the industry, but more and more I see comments by people who are gleefully hoping for such a thing. They’re cheering for honest, hard-working people to lose their jobs just because the games being made aren’t to their taste, a level of pettiness that would have been utterly unthinkable before the Internet lowered the bar for all of humanity.

Not everyone has gone to that extreme of nastiness, but there doesn’t seem to be any escape from the negativity. Even commentators who used to be beacons of passion and enthusiasm seem to be increasingly pessimistic about the genre.

And you know, I really can’t understand why. Looking at the big picture, the MMO genre seems pretty healthy to me.

A lot of the current cynicism seems to come from the relative lack of new games coming out that are in the traditional mold of MMORPGs like World of Warcraft or EverQuest. Instead things seem to be trending more toward “MMO lite” style games like Anthem, The Division 2, and Fortnite. Fans of the old school feel left behind.

A party of player Javelins in the MMO shooter Anthem

Isn’t this what we wanted, though? Back when a new MMORPG was coming out seemingly every other month, all I remember seeing was people complaining (justifiably) about how sick they were of generic WoW clones. We were all starved for change and innovation.

Well, now we’re getting that. The genre is changing. It might not be changing exactly in the direction that you want it to, but it’s not objectively a bad thing. Indeed, change is a sign of growth, and health.

Whether they’re to your taste or not, games like Fortnite or Anthem are bringing people together in the online space, creating memories, and introducing new people to the world of online gaming. Those are all good things.

And I say that as someone who is at best lukewarm to shooters and wouldn’t touch a battle royale game with a ten foot pole.

Meanwhile fans of traditional MMORPGs aren’t exactly going underserved, either. There are plenty of traditional games like WoW, Final Fantasy XIV, and Elder Scrolls Online that are still thriving.

The space of online gaming is growing, evolving, and providing a greater diversity of experience to cater to all tastes. There may be problems, but there’s also tremendous cause for optimism, even as the community — or at least its vocal members — predict the death of the genre daily.

This negativity has real consequences. For example, word of mouth has become entirely worthless.

Every single game that comes out is now decried as a lazy cash grab, regardless of the reality, which makes it impossible to determine which games are actually cash grabs. I can’t trust player reviews anymore, and increasingly I’m finding professional reviews hard to trust, too. That’s a really bad place to be as a consumer because it’s very hard to tell which games are worth spending cash on (thank the gaming gods for good free to play games).

Then we also have to consider how much of a turn-off to new players this constant haze of negativity must be. If you want to attract new players to your genre, endlessly ranting about how everything is awful is probably not a good strategy.

MMOs as a genre are fine. It’s the community that’s dying.


Build MMOs for More Alts, Not Less

I like playing alternate characters. In fact I play alts so much the concept of a “main” in my case is nebulous at best. Bouncing around between different characters with different playstyles and aesthetics keeps MMOs fresh for me.

My Jedi knight alt in Star Wars: The Old Republic

Yet always I’m left with the feeling that playing alts is a case of swimming against the current. It’s something nearly every game allows, but which very few actually encourage. It’s never been viewed as a valid playstyle worthy of its own content and systems in the way PvP or raiding might be.

And I ask: Why?

Why Alts Matter

In most games, playing an alt means repeating the same content, doing all the same grinds, and getting nothing to show for it. At best some games are now offering a certain degree of account-wide progression — such as how mounts in World of Warcraft and Elder Scrolls Online are shared across all your characters — but for the most part playing alts still means starting over from scratch, and there’s almost no reward for it.

Why must this be so? If you’re putting in two or three times more effort, why not get at least some reward for it?

I’d even argue that there is a certain degree of skill required to maintain a stable of alts. You need to not only learn all those disparate mechanics but remember them as you continue to swap between them. I have found this is a skill that can be improved with practice — I’ve played so many classes across so many games that I can now pick up new playstyles and rotations almost immediately.

Now, I’m not saying that alts requires more skill or is otherwise superior to other playstyles. But I think you can convincingly argue that it doesn’t deserve to be the red-headed stepchild developers seem to treat it as.

So how can we properly support alt players?

Alts as Endgame

The first thing alts need is some variety in the leveling path. These days far too many MMOs make every character take the exact same path to level cap. Alts are much more appealing when there are multiple leveling paths. Some games offer differing content based on race, class, or faction, but I’d like to see more games vary the leveling experience based on choices made after character creation.

My templar alt in Elder Scrolls Online

Global level-scaling is also a good way to add variety to leveling, as it gives players more flexibility on where to go and what to do.

Next, at least some degree of account-wide progression is a must. Sharing cosmetics across characters is a good start, but more can be done. For instance, gear could become account-bound rather than character bound, allowing your alts to inherit hand-me-downs from their forebears.

But all that only makes alts less of a chore. What the genre really lacks is games where alts are not only tolerated, but encouraged. Alts have the potential to be an endgame unto themselves.

The best example of this I can think of is how the original Guild Wars allowed players to use their alts as NPC hirelings, though that was largely a cosmetic feature. Star Wars: The Old Republic also has some perks for altoholics. In that game, reputation is usually gated by daily quests, but gains are shared across all your characters on a server, so the more alts you have, the more quests you can run and the faster you can earn rep.

Those are all good ideas, but I think more can be done. Imagine, for example, a game wherein classes are highly specialized, but you can swap characters on the fly. The more characters you have, the more versatile you are, and the more you can accomplish. You might change characters multiple times in a single dungeon to best counter the challenges within.

That’s just one idea. Undoubtedly professional game designers could come up with others.

I’m not saying that every game needs to encourage alts. Not everyone wants to play alts, and variety is a good thing to have. But right now alt play is an under-served niche. The genre would be enriched by at least one or two MMOs where playing alts is not only welcome, but the best way to play.

How would you make alts more rewarding?


Exploration Is the Ultimate MMO Design Challenge

Insomuch as I put any faith in the Bartle player types (which is to say not very much), I self-identify as an explorer. I play online games because I like exploring imaginary worlds, and MMORPGs are arguably the best way to do that.

A screenshot from the Path of Fire expansion for Guild Wars 2.

But while I love the idea of exploration, it’s something that a lot of games struggle to offer in a satisfying way, and the more I think about it, the more I think exploration may just be the ultimate MMO design challenge.

The Search for New Frontiers

At the end of the day, what the explorer seeks is new experiences. But that’s harder to achieve than you’d think.

Once you’ve seen a dungeon, or done a quest, or taken screenshots from atop a beautiful vista, it’s not new anymore. Then it’s time to move on and find something else wondrous to discover.

For this reason, a game that wants to provide satisfying exploration needs to have a lot of content. There needs to always be something new on the horizon.

But to meet that level of quantity, you have to cut corners. Few if any MMO developers have the resources to provide an endless supply of novel experiences, at least until the day player-generated content becomes mainstream. Thus, they often turn to cookie cutter design.

Guild Wars 2 and Elder Scrolls Online are both games I view as prioritizing exploration as a playstyle. Both offer a wealth of open world content that is largely non-linear in presentation. In both games, you can set out in any direction and find something interesting to do, and at first, I loved the sense of freedom that offered.

But with both games, I eventually realized how formulaic the content was. Each zone provides largely the same activities presented in largely the same way. The sense of exploration died as it became clear I was merely repeating what amounted to the same content endlessly reskinned.

The ultimate example of quantity over quality exploration would be procedural generation, which can produce massive worlds or even universes, but cannot achieve true artistry save by chance. A program is never going to able to consistently design beautiful art or memorable story-telling the way a human can.

At the other end of the spectrum, you can choose quality over quantity. You can carefully curate the content players experience, making each quest or dungeon unique and memorable. This keeps new content continually fresh, but it tends to lead to a lot less content being produced, and it often (though not always) makes for a more linear and restrictive experience.

A screenshot from the Knights of the Eternal Throne expansion for Star Wars: The Old Republic.

An extreme example of this design philosophy might be SWTOR’s recent expansions. They’re high quality, and each new chapter feels exciting to play the first time, but it’s an incredibly on-rails experience. There’s no sense of liberty or player agency.

I don’t think there’s anything that’s going to quite solve this problem. Not entirely. The struggle of quality versus quantity will always be there. It’s up to each developer to strike the right balance for each game.

With that being said, I think there is something that can help, and that’s adding depth to content.

There’s a tendency nowadays to make open world game design akin to a checklist of chores. You get a bunch of icons on the map representing activities, and you try to tick them all off. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but there should be more.

Stick hidden side quests in out of the way locations. Design areas off the beaten path that have no purpose other than to be pretty, or to add to the texture of the world. Put in hidden areas with random caches of loot.

In all honesty, one of my favorite memories of playing Guild Wars 2 was of finding a patch of strawberries hidden in out of the way place with nothing to lead you there. It made the world feel very real.

And don’t let the world stay static. Add new things, big and small, to old zones. Perhaps even without mentioning it in the patch notes. Just the knowledge that there’s a chance to find something new in old areas will completely change the feel of a game.

At the end of the day, good exploration design is about giving players the impression there’s always the potential for something amazing around the next corner. Even if it’s an illusion.


Six MMOs with the Best Story-telling

Story in MMORPGs doesn’t have a great reputation. A lot of people think there are no MMOs with good story, and many others feel story is pointless in an online game, preferring the organic stories they make by playing with their friends.

But I refute both positions. I think scripted story is a crucial part of the MMO experience. If I’m going to spend hundreds of hours in an imaginary world, it had better be a world that interests me, with characters I care about.

Luckily for me, the field of MMO story isn’t as barren as some would have you think. Indeed, I think the persistent nature of an MMO presents unique story-telling opportunities. There are games out there that make plot a priority, and tell memorable and engaging stories through their evolving game worlds.

Elder Scrolls Online

Quest text from Elder Scrolls Online

ESO’s story-telling can be hit and miss. Some of the stories are memorable — I particularly enjoyed the intrigue of the Thieves Guild DLC — but many are more shallow.

However, I do give ESO credit for making story a priority. The game is overflowing with highly polished quest content, and the lion’s share of its DLC is devoted to new story content. Too many MMOs make story take a back seat to gear treadmills or competitive play.

For ESO, story is a core part of the game’s identity, and that earns my respect even when the quality is inconsistent.

Star Trek Online

A story cutscene from Star Trek Online

There are those who say that Star Trek Online — and not Discovery or the recent movies — is the true successor to Star Trek’s decades-long legacy of story-telling.

As someone who enjoys Star Trek but is kind of a snob about it, I’m not sure I would go that far, but I can say that STO makes a very admirable attempt to continue the legacy of Gene Roddenberry’s legendary sci-fi universe.

The quality of writing may not be quite on par with the best of the TV shows or movies, but it is clear that STO’s devs are true fans of the franchise and that providing a good, solid story rooted in Star Trek’s rich lore and history is a top priority for them. That’s worthy of praise.

STO is also one of the few MMOs that puts story first when it comes to designing content. The missions are not just standard kill and collect quests with the story in the background; the plot is a driving force for gameplay, and that adds a richness and depth to the experience that most MMOs lack.

Defiance 2050

A story cutscene from the MMO shooter Defiance

There’s more than one type of good story. Not everything needs to be deeply thought-provoking or emotionally profound. Sometimes it’s nice to just have a fun romp.

That’s exactly what the story in Defiance — and its reboot, Defiance 2050 — is. It might be a bit campy at times, but it’s never boring. There’s plenty of action, humor, and excitement to keep you entertained. It’s a good pulp adventure.

The characters are very colorful, too, and unlike most MMOs, you stick with more or less the same cast of NPCs throughout the game, rather than cycling through an endless procession of throwaway nobodies, which gives you time to get attached to them.

World of Warcraft

The introductory experience for the Nightborne Allied Race in World of Warcraft

WoW’s story-telling has always been a tad… inconsistent, as evidenced by the rather mixed reaction to Battle for Azeroth’s story developments. Blizzard has only a loose relationship to continuity, and their devotion to the rule of cool has its dark side.

But when they get it right, oh, man, do they get it right.

The epic struggle of Wrath of the Lich King and the emotional journey of Mists of Pandaria are genuinely some of the best video game stories I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience.

It also cannot be denied that the Warcraft universe is by now one of the deepest and richest settings of the MMO genre, or indeed all of pop culture. Entire volumes could be filled with Azeroth’s fictional history.

What makes World of Warcraft’s story special, though, is the sheer passion that goes into it. You can question Blizzard’s decision making at times, but you can never deny the love they have for their world and its stories. Every aspect of the Warcraft setting exudes color, personality, and intensity.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

A companion mission in Star Wars: The Old Republic

More so than any other title, Star Wars: The Old Republic made story a selling feature, dubbing it the “fourth pillar” of game design. In the end, it may not have been the revelation for MMO story-telling Bioware had hoped for, but it does still rise above the pack, launching with eight unique stories for its various classes and adding some other impressive story arcs with its many expansions.

There are two things that set SWTOR above most other MMOs when it comes to story.

One is the element of player choice. Rather than being a passive actor in the story, players are given freedom to control how their character speaks and reacts, creating a much deeper role-playing experience. Yes, the consequences for choices tend to be minimal, but it’s still far more than most any other MMO offers.

The other is the depth of character provided by companions, a consistent strength throughout Bioware’s games. One of the main things holding back MMO story-telling is the shallow and disposable nature of most NPCs, but by keeping companions around for the long haul, SWTOR is able to foster genuine emotional bonds with the characters.

Secret World Legends

A cutscene from story-driven MMORPG The Secret World

I have tended to be pretty critical of Secret World Legends due to how the transition from the original Secret World game was handled, but one thing that hasn’t much changed is the story. It was amazing before the reboot, and it’s amazing now.

Secret World Legends’ story isn’t just good for an MMO. It boasts some of the best story-telling in any game, period.

The characters are brilliantly strange and unusual, ranging from a mummified occult gangster to a pansexual rockabilly eco-activist to a blind werewolf elder. Each quest is a memorable story filled with pathos, suspense, and sometimes shocking twists. The world-building is second to none, seamlessly hybridizing numerous real world mythologies and conspiracy theories with the game’s own fiction.

Diverse mission design incorporating stealth and puzzles also helps sell both the mystery and the dread of the setting. It’s not just a matter of reading quest text or listening to NPCs talk; the ambiance and character oozes from every aspect of the game.


Factions Have Outstayed Their Welcome

The hype around Battle for Azeroth has once again brought the seemingly endless conflict between World of Warcraft’s Alliance and Horde into the spotlight. Despite being a long-time WoW player, though, I find myself giving serious thought to passing on this expansion altogether for the simple reason that I have long felt the factional conflict is, in a word, stupid.

A Lightforged Draenei character in World of Warcraft

And that’s not just true of WoW. Factions in MMOs — or at least in PvE focused MMOs — have always been one of my pet peeves. They harm games far more than they’ve ever helped them.

Factions Add Little

First of all, it needs to be said that factions really don’t add much to the experience of playing MMOs. They’re unnecessary, at best.

The chief argument that seems to be put forth in favor of dividing players into factions is that it instills a sense of pride and faction identity, but I’ve never heard anyone clearly articulate why that’s actually a good thing. Mostly it just seems to feed toxicity between players (more on that in a minute).

The next biggest argument for factions is that they provide a basis for PvP, but in reality they’re completely unnecessary for PvP. It’s entirely possible to still have player competition without them. Guild Wars 2 offers multiple PvP modes, including massive world versus world, without any discrete factions at all. And that’s just one example that I could give.

If anything, factions harm PvP more than they help it. It’s very difficult for developers to balance the population numbers between factions, especially given people’s predilection to gravitate to whichever faction has more “pretty” races. Just look at Aion’s eternal struggles to balance the Elyos and Asmodae factions.

The only benefit from factions that I personally have ever seen is that they offer variety when it comes to storylines and leveling content. Leveling up as an Imperial character in Star Wars: The Old Republic tends to be a very different experience from doing those same levels as a republic character.

The Iron Marches zone in Guild Wars 2, a game blessedly free of player factions

But even then, factions aren’t really necessary for that. Guild Wars 2 offers a healthy selection of distinct starter zones and personal stories based on its various races without any need to divide players between arbitrary factions.

They Go Nowhere

Another thing that grinds my gears about factions is that the conflict between them can never truly go anywhere. It’s a story with no drama. To keep the game balanced, neither side can ever win a major victory or suffer a major loss. Doing so means favoring one group of paying customers while disadvantaging another, and that’s such bad business it borders on economic suicide. No developer is ever going to do that, nor should they.

When Blizzard revealed that Battle for Azeroth would be an expansion focused on the Alliance-Horde war, they immediately revealed that it would be a filler expansion and killed my hype right out of the gate. We already know this story can’t go anywhere. Neither side is ever going to win or lose this war.

We see this already with the pre-patch. The Alliance losing Teldrassil or the Horde losing Undercity each individually could have been a powerful moment for this story, but this perfectly balanced eye for an eye scenario pulls the curtain back from how stale and artificial this conflict truly is.

This isn’t a unique problem to WoW, either. The fundamental nature of MMO design prevents faction conflicts from ever having a proper resolution. Even in games where players are able to fight other factions for territory directly, true victory or defeat is impossible. It doesn’t matter how often the Daggerfall Covenant loses in Cyrodiil; they’ll always keep coming back.

And They Drive Us Apart

For all the reasons listed above, I consider factions in most MMOs to be superfluous. But that’s not why I’m really against them. The worst thing about factions is that they divide the community.

Even Star Wars: The Old Republic frequently unites the Dark and Light sides

Firstly, they divide us in a simple, literal sense. If I’m playing Alliance and my friend plays Horde, one of us has to transfer, or we can’t play together. If your game has two factions, you’ve effectively cut your playerbase in half. In a genre where more people to meet and group with is almost always better, that’s a powerfully asinine move.

You can mitigate this by allowing people to group across factions — as Elder Scrolls Online wisely has — but at that point one has to wonder why bother having factions in the first place.

Worse, it breeds toxicity in a genre that already has far too much of it. Developers seem to think factional rivalries lead to fun, neighborly competition, but the reality ends up looking more like a blood feud between competing mob families.

If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone make the earnest claim that Horde players are bullies or that Alliance players are crybabies (both stereotypes that have more truth to them than I care to admit), I could pay for my subscription for years to come.

It’s not just the occasional snide comment on forums, either. The bile between player factions can sometimes escalate to serious, ongoing harassment. Developers have been known to receive death threats when one faction or another is viewed to be unfairly favored.

MMOs should be about bringing people together, but all factions do is drive people apart.

* * *

There are some games for which factions make sense. PvP focused games like the upcoming Camelot Unchained simply wouldn’t work without player factions, and I have no problem with that.

But it’s time to acknowledge factions as what they are: A niche feature that doesn’t fit in most games. For a PvE themepark, factions offer little, and take away much.


Comparing MMORPG Group Content

MMOs are, at their heart, about playing with other people. Even as a mainly solo player, I acknowledge this. To this end, developers have come up with many forms of content designed specifically to be tackled by groups, but they’re not all created equal. Each form of group content has its pros and cons.

A group flashpoint in Star Wars: The Old Republic

Dungeons

Dungeons are the archetypical RPG experience: a party of adventures venturing into forgotten ruins in search of wealth and glory. In MMORPGs, dungeons are usually for groups of about four to six players, which makes them a happy balance between being social but not too crowded.

Dungeons tend to represent a stepping stone between the easy outdoor content and the more challenging raids. This is both one of their chief virtues, and their downfall.

The problem with dungeons is that they are, almost invariably, viewed only as that stepping stone. They are rarely granted the privilege of being an endgame unto themselves, instead being treated as little more than a funnel into raids. This makes it hard to achieve satisfying progression as a dungeon fan. You end up living as a second class citizen to the “real” players, who raid.

Raids

For better or for worse, raids have long been held up as the pinnacle of MMO group content. They feature the largest group sizes, the highest difficulty, and the best rewards.

For those who enjoy them, raids are as good as it gets. The MMO community is full of stories of fond memories, lifelong friendships, and even marriages that grew out of raid groups.

The downside is that while the raiding community is incredibly vocal and passionate, it’s also incredibly small. Due to the high time and skill requirements of raiding, most players simply can’t be bothered. Hard numbers for such things are always difficult to come by, but from the evidence I’ve seen it seems that raiders usually make up about 1-5% of a MMORPG’s playerbase, at best.

Fighting the Sha of Pride raid boss in World of Warcraft

The problem arises from the fact that raids are also very resource intensive, and by their nature as the intended pinnacle of endgame, they tend to offer the most desirable rewards and the highest production values. Thus, huge amounts of development resources are being devoted to a tiny minority of players.

It’s not impossible for raiders and non-raiders to coexist, but it’s a difficult tightrope for a developer to walk. You need to reward the raiders for their hard work without kneecapping everyone else. Raids are inherently disruptive to the balance of a game.

Small Group Content

By “small group content,” I mean content that is designed for groups, but groups of a size less than the traditional dungeon group — two to three people.

The fact there’s no commonly accepted term for content scaled to this size — the way there is for dungeons and raids — should tell you how common it is. World of Warcraft experimented with scenarios in its Mists of Pandaria expansion, which were catered to three player groups, and the upcoming Battle for Azeroth will add a similar feature in the form of Island Expeditions. Secret World Legends also has a feature called scenarios that can done by duos, but beyond those I struggle to think of many examples of dedicated small group content in MMOs (feel free to mention others in the comments).

People who prefer to play in twos or threes are therefore usually relegated to playing quest content that was designed for soloists, forcing them to endure phasing issues or difficulty that wasn’t tuned for more than one person.

And I really don’t understand why. Again, not being a developer or researcher, I don’t have hard numbers, but anecdotally as a longtime MMO player, I’ve found that groups of two or three (often couples or close friend groups) are by far and away the most common form of social group in MMOs. The fact that most group content is built solely for larger groups baffles me.

PvP

The chaotic PvP combat of WildStar

PvP doesn’t immediately come to mind for me when discussing group content, but duels and the occasional gank notwithstanding, player versus player gameplay is almost always group-based.

The trouble with PvP from a social perspective is that it necessitates losers as well as winners. For this reason, it has a higher potential for toxicity (not that PvE doesn’t have its fair share, as well).

As a result, I think it’s better to enter PvP with a group of people you already know and trust, rather than trying to form connections mid-match. The exception may be for slower paced, larger scale PvP such as Guild Wars 2’s WvW or Cyrodiil in Elder Scrolls Online. The persistent nature of those contests gives time for meaningful social connections to flourish.

Public Events

A world boss spawns, and the call goes out in general chat. In a matter of minutes, dozens or even hundreds of players descend upon the unsuspecting mob, full of fire, fury, and the lust for loot.

First introduced by the dearly departed Warhammer Online and made a major selling feature of both Rift and Guild Wars 2, public events are MMOs at their wildest and most chaotic. Whether this is a positive or a negative depends on personal perspective, but for my money, I feel public events are the purest expression of what MMORPGs should be, organic and epic in equal measure.

That said, there are other perspectives. Many argue — with more than a little justification — that public events are naught by mindless zergs. Even as a huge fan of the concept, I struggle to defend them from this criticism.

Others say that the lack of organization makes it difficult if not impossible to form meaningful social connections. If it’s just a mindless swarm of people spamming abilities, where’s the opportunity for friendships to form?

It’s a worthy concern, but I must say that the one and only meaningful friendship I ever made via MMOs was with someone I met at a world boss fight in The Secret World…